In 1941, 15-year-old Lina’s life abruptly shifts from thinking about art school and friends to sheer survival when she is wrenched from her bucolic teenage life. One day, NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police, abducts Lina, her mother, brother Jonas and acquaintance Andrius and forces them onto train cars with numerous other Lithuanians. They say that the people are criminals and are being punished, but for what crime? For having an ethnic background that Stalin does not approve of?
After the people arrive at a forced labor camp, weak and emaciated, the guards attempt to coerce them to sign a document condemning them to a quarter-century of hard labor. For his own amusement, one of the guards buries Lina and her mother alive in a hole that they dug, then releases them to spend the rest of the day digging.
At least Lina’s artistry is valued by the Russian guards. She copies a map for the guards; then, she is asked to draw a portrait of the commander. Although she longs to draw what she feels—hissing snakes emerging from the collar of a clean-pressed uniform, she manages to control herself; she draws the flattering portrait that is expected of her.
Women are considered free game to the guards, and theft of beets, pens, or bread is punished severely. Only on days that they work are the prisoners allotted 300 grams of bread once per day.
Beacons of hope in these somber days are: Lina’s growing affection for Andrius, her 16th birthday celebration, and two Christmases spent in labor camps.
Lithuanians die of starvation, strange diseases, and murder at the hands of the guards. A bald man talks incessantly of death, yet he grudgingly agrees to let the group utilize his hut for holiday festivities: as much food, fun and togetherness as they can muster under the circumstances.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, 2011
It is estimated that Stalin killed 20 million people in his reign of terror. The grandfather of the author is a Lithuanian military officer. Sepetys made two trips to Lithuania to conduct research for this book. I like how the book alternates between scenes of Lina’s sobering present reality and happy memories of the past in her country.